Who Are You In The Book of Job

How do we forgive ourselves when we have harmed, even maimed, someone else?

There was a man name Alan I spoke with who went to the hospital for a routine podiatrist appointment. An accident occurred while he was driving his vehicle to the hospital, resulting in a gentleman losing his leg.

“I thought my foot was on the brake. I was putting it in park.”

Alan’s foot slipped, the vehicle kept going. The vehicle struck a hospital worker, resulting in a severe injury to the hospital worker’s leg. Days later, we all found out amputation of said leg was needed.

Alan was angry, ashamed, sorrowful, and suffering of total despair. He couldn’t help but see dark and bitter irony to the circumstance, coming to the hospital for a small procedure on his foot and, in his own words, “at the expense of someone else’s leg.”

In our conversation, Alan repeated Christian motifs over and over, his knowledge of Christ saving us from our sins, forgiveness that comes through Him alone and His sacrfice. Nonetheless, he couldn’t forgive himself, indicating he should have never come to the hospital. It didn’t matter to Alan that this was an accident, and the grace that he believes Christ gives him didn’t seem to address the personal resentment he had for himself for this accident. Alan was furious with himself, calling himself a list of names and regarded his own medical needs—having cancer in addition to diabetes that was affecting his foot—as insignificant in light of the event. I think in part Alan wished he would have suffered bodily himself, to be martyr to his own medical complications rather than suffer the accident. Putting myself in his shoes, I don’t blame him for such sentiments. I can’t imagine living with that guilt, even knowing it was a total accident.

How are we to make sense of such things? Both Alan and the medical worker suffer from immeasurable grief from something accidental, something so blameless. There was no impariment. There was no malice. What is to be said to Alan? What is to be said to the medical worker? What consolation or sense can be made out of this?

We are tempted to offer our own explanation for such things, to provide some answer for the calamity. We offer this both when we are asked and sometimes we offer this unsolicited. But it is a haughty thing for us to espouse a particular meaning or message out of it, and we must be careful as we attempt to offer explanation that we do not become like Job’s friends.

In the Book of Job, we hear the tale of a righteous man who undergoes undeserved suffering. The reader sees in the beginning that Job is tested due to the devil being given certain permissions to afflict Job; Satan seems to think Job will stop praising God once his fortune turns around, and God allows Satan—with some parameters—to afflict Job. Job laments for the lives lost in the calamity, for the illness he endures. He does voice some hard questions to both God and to his friends that come to “comfort him.” But what we find at the end of the Job’s story is that Job is not satisfied with the explanation for his senseless suffering, nor is God satisfied. At the very end, God restores Job and gives Job the holy responsibility to offer prayers and sacrifice on behalf of his friends who attempted to rationalize the calamity. In short, God rewards Job for wrestling with Him and with the calamity, whereas the friends are looked down upon for their poor counsel.

Looking back on my conversation with Alan, I can’t help but see Job shine in him. Alan is a dedicated man of prayer, faithful in reading his devotionals, doing his daily prayers, and can theologize about grace. Alan carries a kind of blameless record that Job had of being an upstanding servant of the Lord. Like Job, there is wrestling for the calamity, questioning as to why he has to suffer such things. 

But no answer will suffice, perhaps because it is not our part to offer the answer and perhaps because both the sufferer and the counselor cannot examine any answer until a due time presents such clarity. In short, empathy does not come in the form of explanation, and answers cannot provide a balm of healing to such pain.

I think of another encounter I had some time ago with a grieving grandmother and her family as they were about to pull life support from a poor teenage boy who had shot himself. Why had the grandmother’s prayers not been answered? Why had this boy not been protected from such a horrible tragedy in spite of all the prayers and devotion the family had to God? 

“What am I supposed to tell my daughter who is grieving her son and my grandson?” The grandmother asked me quite angrily—and understandably irate. “What can I offer her?”

“Today is not a day for answers. You cannot provide your daughter with that answer, and neither can I. And truthfully, I’m not sure any answer will suffice how awful this tragedy is. But here you are, pouring your soul out. You are here for your family, you are here for your daughter, and for your grandson. That’s what matters. That’s what she needs. That’s what this family needs.”

All praise to God for giving that to me in such a harrowing moment.

Similarly, I nor anyone else could give Alan a proper explanation for such a senseless and horrible thing.

That being said, Alan and I did pray, and we prayed for his health and for his needs to be met. But we also prayed for the medical worker who had lost his leg, for his needs to be met. We prayed acknowledging only God’s hand being able to sustain them both in these awful circumstances. Alan cried at that, shaking horribly as we prayed for this man. In closing of the prayer, i saw some hope in Alan’s eyes. He found some hope in this. Further, Alan seemed open to the possibility of becoming an intercessor for this medical worker for the rest of his life, to lift this man’s concerns up in his own prayers each day.

Did this accident happen so that Alan would become a prayer warrior? Did the man had to lose his leg in order to have an intercessor? It’s not for us to pose such possibilities. God has purpose, but it is His and not our own.

That being said, I do believe God uses us to two specific ends when we are witnesses to calamity, when we are Job’s friends:

-Sit in the muck of the tragedy with the Job in our life. Don’t sugar coat, silver line, or wax on about some answer we have little discernment of. Let us not presume to be God or know His will…

-But let us fervently pour our heart out in prayer for God’s hand to be in that calamity. Rather than use our words to imagine meaning, let us ask God to make meaning and make mercy in light of the tragedy.

-Lastly, encourage action, with discernment. While I think it’s not our place to offer answers, I think offering action can provide catharsis. That being said, this is something earned and not granted. We ought not lead our empathy with suggestions. In the case of Alan, at the end of the visit, I suggested the possibility of him praying for this man, and it seemed earned as it came after our prayer together and I could see both grace and hope shine forth. In the case of the grandmother, I had sat with the family for about an hour silently listening, confessing my own powerlessness in the circumstances. When the grandmother asked what she could possibly do or say for her daughter while feeling so powerless, I offered her to see to what she was already doing, to continue doing what she was doing: showing up, being present, and nothing more or less than that.

Brothers and sisters, let us forgive each other and one another and seek out the Lord for forgiveness. Let us acknowledge the suffering each of us endures and provide what Job lacked in his friends. 

What Does Forgiveness Look Like? An Armrest

Let me share with you the longest flight I ever endured.

It was a 20 hour flight across the world, though it wasn’t the duration of the non-stop flight that made it so long, but rather my neighbor…

He was a bigger gentleman, binged on R-rated films for most of the flight, and like most of us was in need of a shower and some deodorant from a very long venture. None of that bothered me, because I got it: we had a long trip home in front of all of us, and we were all trying to make the best of this day-long flight.

But the spitting tobacco was what set me over.

A few hours into the flight, the man asked for a Styrofoam cup from the flight attendant and began dipping and spitting. Having lived around smokers most my life, I feel I have a rather strong disgust tolerance for all things tobacco. So, believe me when I tell you that this was the most repugnant aroma I have smelled in my life.  The man had concocted a miasma of foul poison from his mouth to this cup, comprised of his spit, the tobacco, and whatever other toxins that particular chewing tobacco had. The sound of this ichor going from his mouth to the cup was so visceral. Though I could be imagining this particular detail, I’m fairly certain the man’s backsplash into the cup flung at least one droplet into my space.

His Styrofoam cup became a biohazard as he dozed off to his film, his grip on it uncertain during his dreams. Thankfully he awoke about fifteen minutes in and had the kindness of using my armrest’s cupholder to secure his petri dish of backwash.

Some theaters and airplanes are designed properly to give each seat a full armrest. Some are not. Some are so inadequate and unpartitioned that it makes the dividing line of “mine” and “yours” rather ambiguous. But there’s an ideal to be pursued with armrests: each person taking up the seat ought to have one armrest to themselves, undeterred, no questions asked. The man had usurped my armrest with chemical warfare like a World War One affront across the Maginot Line. Worse than that, it wasn’t just that I was an armrest down, but that all my senses (sight, smell, sound, perhaps even touch) had been assaulted by the man’s nasty habit of chew poison. Such grievances have caused humanity to ratify ethical rules of engagement such as the Geneva Convention.

“So why didn’t you say something to him?”

You’re right to ask that. I have only excuses for why I didn’t engage with the man, all coming from base fear and calculated reasoning:

1. It was a 20 hour flight. Depending on how our conversation would go, I would have to endure a day’s worth of travel with an enemy instead of a stranger, and I didn’t have the stamina to take our relationship to that level.

2. I was alone on this flight. I’d flown back at a different time than my friends had, and so I was surrounded by strangers who looked just as tired and checked out as me. Would they have the gumption to get my back should things escalate? I wasn’t so sure.

3. Should the man become upset with my boundary setting, I might have had to wear his chewing tobacco the entire flight, if you catch my drift.

All that being said, I had a responsibility to say something to this new friend of mine, to patch up our budding relationship, and to say it in a tone that would be easy for him to hear. I think we sometimes neglect to say something because we are afraid how our words will be received, or how they’ll come out when emotions are high. But to say nothing while there is something coming between us and the other is to keep a person away rather than to draw close in authentic relationship. Who knows, maybe if I voiced my disgust for his chewing tobacco our conversation could develop into an edifying topic of mutual interest.

We sometimes assume from the Gospels that Christian love and humility means acting like a doormat. While we are called to bear with one another and be charitable in our actions and resources, we must also consider times when Jesus said “no” and set boundaries. It might seem that Jesus is pushing away the Pharisees and Scribes in His list of “woes” at Jerusalem, though really He is pleading with them to change something, so that they too may become disciples. We also see how often Jesus leaves cities after periods of being unwelcome or retreats into the wilderness after trying times of ministry. And then there’s the overthrowing of the vendors’ tables at the temple, rebuking Peter for cutting the ear of a soldier, denying Herod a sign & miracle…the list goes on.

These acts of our Lord are not gestures of pushing away even though externally they may seem as such. The honesty, the firmness, the line in the sand is all a means of healing a broken relationship. It’s like a bone fracture that sometimes tries to heal on its own without any guidance (a phenomena called malunion), for which the cure is actually rebreaking the bone in order to set it back in the proper place.

In Greek, the word forgiveness is συγχωρώ. The etymology of this is “syn” or together along with the verb “χωρέω”. Χωρέω sometimes has a connotation of withdrawing, but also can mean “making space” for someone or something.

I’ve sometimes struggled knowing exactly when I’ve forgiven someone or when I’ve felt forgiven by someone else. How does one forgive when someone has done something that has left things still uncomfortable? I take solace in the image that the Greek word forgiveness has here, this visual of two people together making space for one another. It’s a mutual act of the two parties understanding what each has contributed to a conflict.

This discourse is not meant to throw my fellow passenger under the bus (or plane) for not making space for me after apologizing. There’s room for me to grow in this practice of setting boundaries. As you can probably imagine, I wanted nothing to do with the man during and after the flight. A complete opposite approach was taken, stonewalling without setting a boundary. “Hey man, chewing and spitting that isn’t good for you, and isn’t good for me. Please stop it.” Though armrest etiquette is something most of us take for granted, sometimes these rules of engagement need to be reiterated, reminded, the line in the sand drawn again after the wind obscures it.

Forgiveness is obviously a two-way street, but it works best when a boundary is known by both parties. You can’t make space if you don’t know how much space is being asked for, know when the line was crossed if we can’t agree where the line is.

The beginning of Lent starts with a beautiful service of Forgiveness Vespers. Often we come to this service asking forgiveness from those whom we can’t remember a single time offending or being offended by. But perhaps the asking of forgiveness is an opportunity to lay to the side something we’ve kept inside as well as practicing the line “forgive me” when it’s too hard to say. Lastly, asking the forgiveness of a stranger perhaps is a spiritual way of forgiving those miles away from us who have spit and chewed tobacco next to us on a very long plane ride.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, please forgive me, a sinner!